Why Libraries Are Anything But A Luxury

It is too easy to forget what a genius-level idea libraries are. But if, for a moment, you de-invent and then re-invent them, it’s not hard to imagine some slick young thinker getting up on his TED-legs to tell us how great if it would be for us to share books just as we now share cars and clothes. And everyone would retweet the link, and facebook about it, and call them a visionary.

It is politically advantageous for right-wingers (pro-free market, anti-state) to make voters believe they get very little from the state – that the state is bad at giving them things, that the state is mean, that private companies are better, that private companies are more generous.

Libraries are one of the points where the citizen (tax-payer or not) can increase what they get from the state. It’s possible for the dedicated reader of, say, romance novels or graphic novels, to get through £500 worth of books a year.

The message borrowers receive is that the state isn’t all take. Your local council wants to help you develop and entertain yourself.

On Prague’s National Theatre there is a slogan, ‘To the Nation, From the Nation’. That’s what libraries are now, from the nation to the nation. Some of them may have come from Mr Carnegie and Mr Tate in the beginning, but they didn’t leave all that much money for maintenance. We’ve taken them over. They’re ours to keep or destroy.

If libraries go, our society will have – without question – become more selfish. Yet another civic space, another common, will have been destroyed.

What should libraries be?

Behind me is a little plaque, commemorating the opening of the Old Library Centre. Built 1887. Re-opened 8th May 2004. And it has a motto: ‘A community facility for all’. That’s committee-language, inoffensive and voted-through, but it’s also accurate and, if you think about it, quite stirring.

I think libraries should ‘a community facility for all’. I think libraries should be totally free, open and easy for borrowers to use.

I think librarians should have qualified librarians who are properly trained not just in the Dewey Decimal system but in dealing with the kinds of people who use libraries, and can help those users find the information they need – to fight their legal battles, to discover their local or personal history. Librarians are a great force for basic social justice. They are the guardians of that kind of portal.

As far as I’m concerned –

If it’s not staffed by librarians, it’s not a library – it’s just a building with some books in it.

There are other buildings with some books in, and most of them charge you money to take the books away, and don’t ever want the books back.

Libraries rather than filling potholes – better a slightly bumpy ride to the library than no library at all.

Libraries rather than colourful brochures through the door every month, telling me how wonderful my local council is.

I’ve said libraries have, for me, been like portals – the portals into society. Let’s be honest about who comes through that portal. Libraries are often, you might almost say predominantly, used by the disenfranchised. Like buses, parks, hospitals, they are civic spaces used by the lonely, the angry, the mentally ill, the politically estranged, the very young, the very old. This isn’t incidental – it’s what these places are now for.

You’re not going to catch that many investment brokers or politicians in libraries. The 1% (call them that for swiftness) don’t want other people to have touched the books they read. The 1% are too busy to access the kind of slow knowledge libraries provide. They don’t visit places just for the sake of visiting them, sitting there. They need value added in every moment. They’re already through their own portals.

I believe libraries, as portals to many things, are extremely important. Just because someone has difficulty with society, it doesn’t mean society should make things difficult for them. The opposite – they need to be granted peripheral spaces, easy access, where they can maintain their intellectual dignity and independence.

Libraries are the home of autodidacts – the self-educators who have issues with the power-structures of classroom and lecture hall. I don’t believe all forms of knowledge should be conventional or institutional. I think it is a weakness of philosophy, science in general, that it is by and large only open to those with academic qualifications.

A library card, and a good local library within a borough holding a decent stock of books and with computers for internet access – this is the greatest empowerment we can give some people.

Libraries are our portals. They get us out of ourselves. They take us away from the centre.

A society should not be all centre – especially when that centre is a shopping centre.

This is the most timely bit from a blog I put up a while ago. Full text is here.

I am reposting this because Carnegie Library in South London is currently occupied by about 40 people hoping to save it from transformation into a gym with no librarians but a few books. You can follow the hashtag #carnegieoccupation on twitter or find out more on the Defend the 10 website.

3 thoughts on “Why Libraries Are Anything But A Luxury

  1. Pingback: When is a library not a library? | Not Writing But Blogging

  2. Pingback: Why Libraries Are Anything But A Luxury | This was a man

  3. Pingback: Why Did You and Stella Duffy Get 220 Writers to Sign a Letter about Lambeth Libraries? | tobylitt

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